Book Notes: The Permaculture Handbook :: The Dedication

Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012) is a large-format, 430-pp book packed with information in 22 chapters and 4 case studies. It’s a deeply political book, beginning with the dedication: “To the memory of Ivan Illich, defender of our humanity.”

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) “was an iconoclastic social critic, Jesuit priest, radical Christian, historian, scientist and public intellectual who was especially famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his searing critiques of the oppressive nature of institutions and service professions.  His writings also explored the nature of the nonmarket economy, or ‘vernacular domains,’ as he put it, which are the source of so much of our humanity …. He was passionate, humanistic and contemptuous of the harms caused by modernity and economics to the life of the spirit, especially as seen from within the Catholic tradition.”

(Ivan Illich. Source:

His books “explored the functioning and impact of ‘education’ systems (Deschooling Society), technological development (Tools for Conviviality), energy, transport and economic development (Energy and Equity), medicine (Medical Nemesis), and work (The Right to Useful Unemployment and its Professional Enemies; and Shadow Work [which looked at the economics of scarcity]). Ivan Illich’s lasting contribution was a dissection of these institutions and a demonstration of their corruption. Institutions like schooling and medicine had a tendency to end up working in ways that reversed their original purpose. Illich was later to explore gender, literacy and pain.” (from “Ivan Illich: deschooling, conviviality and lifelong learning” at Infed, a resource of the YMCA George Williams College, London)


“The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. He has lost the power to conceive of himself outside the passenger role. Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social, and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. … He has lost faith in the political power of the feet and of the tongue. As a result, what he wants is not more liberty as a citizen but better service as a client. He does not insist on his freedom to move and to speak to people but on his claim to be shipped and to be informed by media. He wants a better product rather than freedom from servitude to it.” — Ivan Illich, “Energy and Equity” (1974).


Read David Bollier’s talk, “The Quiet Realization of Ivan Illich’s Ideas in the Contemporary Commons Movement (Aug. 2013) for a description of the commons, examples of its success (vs. the misconception of “the tragedy of the commons”), threats to it past and present, how it challenges the cultural paradigm and the “bioeconomic worldview that conjoins Darwinism and free market economics,” and the need to preserve and reestablish the commons. Bollier says that Illich cared deeply about the commons because “[i]t serves as a paradigmatic response – a counterpoint – to the pathologies of modern markets, government, science and large institutions. He understood how the commons could foster a different, more spiritually wholesome pattern of life. … [H]is writings still resonate today … because we remain dangerously entangled and confused by a culture of modernity from which there seems to be no escape.”

Boston Common, with ancient fish weir art project, May 2016

The “great, unacknowledged scandal of our times” is how the commons (the physical, geographical commons) have been enclosed — starting with “the collusion between the English aristocracy and Parliament in seizing village pastures, forests and farmlands in order to convert them into market resources,” forcing inhabitants “into cities to become beggars, shanty-dwellers and exploited wage-slaves.” The core values of the commons, as stated by Bollier, are “participation, inclusiveness, fairness, bottom-up control, community-based innovation, accountability, …[which] all seek to combine production, consumption and governance into an integrated paradigm of change.”

Reading this essay, I feel that Illich’s ideas about the commons represent the intersection of permaculture — meeting one’s own household and community needs in a simple, efficient and effective, sustainable, respectful, ethical manner; building individual and community resilience and self-reliance (not self-sufficiency); developing ways to sustain local and regional communities — with heterotopias, places that subvert cultural paradigms: “The commons challenges some deep structural categories of belief and institutional life. The commons movement seeks to reconfigure many of the embedded dualities of our time – the state and market; public and private; objective and subjective, the universal and the local.”


“In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.” — Ivan Illich, in Tools for Conviviality (1973).


More about/by Illich:

Illich’s obituary in The Guardian (8 Dec. 2002), subtitled “A polymath and polemicist, his greatest contribution was as an archaeologist of ideas, rather than an ideologue.”

Links to a bunch of Illich’s works online at the Preservation Institute. Links to lots more Illich works and some audio at David Tinapple’s website.

Powerful words of Illich at Wikiquote.


A transformation of the environment from a commons to a productive resource constitutes the most fundamental form of environmental degradation. This degradation has a long history, which coincides with the history of capitalism but can in no way just be reduced to it. Unfortunately the importance of this transformation has been overlooked or belittled by political ecology so far. It needs to be recognized if we are to organize defense movements of what remains of the commons.” — Ivan Illich, Silence is a Commons (1982)


I’ll post next about from the first chapter of Bane’s book, “Garden Farming.”

page from chapter one, “Garden Farming” (Peter Bane, The Permaculture Handbook)






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